Nineteenth-century life had more than its share of challenges for women. Disenfranchisement, substandard medical care, and the need to wear corsets are just a few of the downsides they had to face. As the century neared its end, one more malady was added to the list: bicycle face.
The newfangled bicycle was taking the civilized world by storm. Its ease of use and affordability expanded the world for countless cycling enthusiasts. As Munsey’s Magazine put it in 1896: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”
It was the number of female bicycle enthusiasts that alarmed physicians. They warned women of the dangers of bicycles. Their concern wasn’t about failure to wear bicycle helmets or the dangers of riding their bikes on busy streets. It was the effect on female facial features that freaked out physicians.
The Literary Digest described the problem in an 1895 article. “Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face.’” The symptoms could be easily identified: “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Other medical experts noted that the condition was “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.”
Wearied, exhausted, flushed, drawn lips, dark eye shadows, clenched jaw, and bulging eyes… To us, that seems to describe symptoms associated with being the parent of a teenager. The medical experts of the Victorian era saw it as the inevitable consequences of burgeoning feminism and the fairer sex taking on more than they could handle.
In an 1897 article in London’s National Review, physician A. Shadwell claimed to be the first to diagnose the condition. He said bicycles presented a particular danger to women, noting, “cycling as a fashionable craze has been attempted by people unfit for any exertion.”
Although the medical community was quite adamant about the dangers of bicycle face, they lacked consensus about its duration. Some thought it was a temporary condition that would pass. Others warned that it could become permanent. Essentially, they turned the warnings of many mothers back at them: “If you keep scowling like that, your face will freeze in that position.”
The experts also failed to be in complete agreement about the primary cause of the malady. Although everyone agreed that riding a bicycle was the start of the problem, some thought bicycle face was triggered by overexertion. Others insisted it was a consequence of riding a bicycle on the Sabbath. Most concurred that anyone could get bicycle face, but it was women who were particularly at risk.
Doctors warned that the risk of bicycle face was real. They also noted a few other trifling consequences if women insisted upon cycling: heart palpitations, headaches, insomnia, exhaustion, and depression. The real danger, though, was the risk of losing one’s delicate, feminine beauty.
As a public service, New York World offered 41 rules for female cyclists, such as, “Don’t boast of your long rides,” “Don’t use bicycle slang; leave that to the boys,” “Don’t refuse assistance up a hill,” and “Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel toward the ground.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re not even sure what that last one means. It’s apparently ok to emulate the riding posture, as long as you don’t copy your bro’s attitude. Of course, as a general rule, brothers are not known for being the ideal role models for manners and decorum, so maybe they are on to something.)
Only after whipping up a frenzy of public concern about bicycle face did the medical profession take a step back and reevaluate its conclusions. Some physicians dared to suggest that most people — men included — tend to adopt a look of concentration when doing things that require them to — well — concentrate. Despite this, no one has reported any sort of permanent facial impairment or other side effects.
In an act of supreme irony, it was the phrenology specialists who debunked the myth of bicycle face once and for all. The now-discredited medical belief that intelligence and personality could be determined by the shape of a person’s skull looked at bicycle face and concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the diagnosis. Chicago physician Sarah Hackett Stevenson was quoted in an 1897 article in the Phrenological Journal: “[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health. I have been conscientiously recommending bicycling for the last five years,” she said. “The painfully anxious facial expression is seen only among beginners, and is due to the uncertainty of amateurs. As soon as a rider becomes proficient, can gauge her muscular strength, and acquires perfect confidence in her ability to balance herself and in her power of locomotion, this look passes away.”
With all concerns about bicycle face now conclusively dismissed, all of us should feel free to ride to our hearts’ content. Any associated symptoms of pained expression, bulging eyes, or clenched jaw are more likely to be found on the face of your mother if you don’t remember to wear your helmet and look both ways for traffic.